Everything was settled. The party had set a path to get back to civilisation – Hunter had surmised that the dwarf rogue’s traps were probably directional, so they could take the safe path between the plateau and the wilderness without a high chance of anyone getting injured. Reich had organised a schedule for himself that included a daily treatment of the stone statues with his Item spell, turning them into pieces of parchment, allowing for ease of their conveyance. Odate had Qodesh’s blessing to keep them all alive on the blandest gruel known to sentient life. It was all go.
And the trip went almost uneventfully, which for a ten day hike through the wilderness is not something that can easily be said. That said, there were one or two hiccups. Like when Reich was curious to know what happened if you burned something that had been transformed into paper by the Item spell. He had a spare, and thought he could use it on a stick of Bamboo and see what happened. Unfortunately, he had so many pieces of itemed parchment on his person that he got just a little bit mixed up, and accidentally may have set fire to the parchment containing the image of Diakopti. The minotaur warrior had up until recently been working as a mercenary for the ogre sage Kensaku, had changed jobs to work in the recently flourishing statue industry, before ending his short-lived career as a piece of kindling. Never fear though; Reich wouldn’t want the rest of the party to worry their little consciences about that, so he deftly hid it by including in his iteming regime the preservation of one of the cockatrice corpses. This should be of some value when they get back to society, surely. Failing that, it probably tasted like chicken.
It was probably this little upset that explained why the goblin so regularly got the sweats and started shifting his eyes when Hunter started complaining about the fact that they were saving these mercenaries from their well-deserved fate. He felt that they could all benefit from an introduction to the exciting and fulfilling career of kindling. Thankfully, after his recent accident, Reich had taken much greater pains to ensure that the papers were all properly filed, and had also hidden them away from where Hunter’s prying fingers might accidentally happen upon them and mistakenly assume they were fire fuel.
There were a few other exciting happenings on the trip – at one point Sage saw a tiger in a stand of bamboo; Ashana named her eagle Insight; that same day Insight returned to the camp with a warthog (but conscientiously guarded it from any party member as he slowly and methodically tore it to shreds and gobbled it down all by himself); and Hunter came across one of the traps that the dwarf had set for them, which fired a probably poisoned dart harmlessly ahead of them.
But one night as the party were sleeping and Hunter was on watch, wondering how he might convince his fellow goody-goody-two-shoes to alter their views in the fire-making department, he heard some movement that didn’t sound much at all like a human, or a kender, or a goblin, or an ogre, or an elf, a donkey or an ox, or a giant eagle. Okay, so there were a lot of things the movement could have been. But Hunter was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. It sounded slithery. Whatever it was, Hunter was certain of one thing – he couldn’t see jack all, and that couldn’t continue. Reaching into his pocket for a pile of small stones he kept just for such an occasion, Hunter flung them at his sleeping companions, figuring it would wake them up.
And sure enough it worked – he quickly heard the grumbling mutters of the rest of the party being woken long before their own shifts on picket duty. After a few moments of harsh whispering about how deadly danger to the party trumps the need for a good night’s sleep – even if you are Reichstag – the wizard tossed a small ball of hazy yellow light over the camp, which bathed the campsite in a dull orange glow, as though the sun were setting now instead of several hours before. Only the light from the mage’s spell was different to normal: the little sphere usually cast out light in a perfect circle; but now, there were fingers of darkness that seemed to probe and claw at the light, as though seeking to tear at it and bring it to an end. But for now, the light held fast, and in its glow the party could see a snake – a huge snake, easily standing eight feet tall – that held a shield in one hand, and an incredibly intricate and painful-looking harpoon type weapon covered in fish hooks in the other. The snake’s eyes were partially lidded at the sudden existence of light, and the shield glinted with the word ’Tu’eva’ splashed on its metallic surface in a dark, ichory liquid that it was probably best not to speculate about.
It was a yuan-ti – the race of snakepeople that had been gifted with metallurgy, and who lived in tunnels under the fiery mountains. With a hiss, the snake delivered its message, its words curled by its unmistakable accent. “The Queen of Misery has called me to you. I am sent through this wilderness to the mountains beyond, where I might commit some heinous acts of evil” – it paused for a moment, almost relishing in the disapproving looks it received from the party – “but when I saw the embers of the campfire, though I was under instruction not to tarry, my Lady spoke to me, urging me to attend upon you.” As she spoke – at least, they thought it was a she, as her voice was slightly higher pitched – her body curled about on itself, so that she might present her words to all around her. “But fear not: though I could likely kill you all as easily as snapping a twig, the Dark Queen does not want you dead. She wants you miserable. She wants you to suffer. She wants you to know that I am going to bring upon the world such torment that”-
Hunter interrupted, “Will you get on with it, handbag? We need sleep, and you’re giving me a hankering for a new belt and a pair of shoes.” The yuan-ti was hardly perturbed. She tossed her head and gave a smile that showed off her impressive fangs. “Such big words for a race of prey. I will look forward to eating one of your sisters soon.” “I only have one sister,” came Hunter’s snarky reply, and the yuan-ti simply grinned a little more, before turning its attention to Reichstag. “Congratulations are in order, I’m told. But it is such a shame. Such a shame.” And then she returned to her circular writhing, which was almost hypnotic as the light flickered off her scales and bravely fought off the intrusion of the fingers of darkness that continued to assault it.
“I will leave you be. I will not disobey my Queen No, not tonight, fun thought it might be. But…” she paused, her forked tongue flicking from her mouth, “it has been some time, yes? Since you have been back to civilised lands?” The grin returned, sharp and rather unnerving, as it was turned upon Ashana and Odate. “You’ll be most surprised at what’s happened. Queen Dimeh has made some rather interesting changes in policy.” She brooked no questions, and with little more than a mocking bow, slid herself westwards towards the mountains. As she left, the light became a touch brighter, its battle against the darkness won. Then Reich snapped it out with a click of his fingers, and they were all plunged into sudden darkness. “Gotta sleep. Need magic. Talk in morning.”
The next morning, the sun rose much as it had done every other day. The rest of the journey was empty of much excitement, although there was a mixture of relief and regret when, about a day or two out of Pa Direh, the ground became wet, rice paddies appeared, and it started raining in the afternoon, as if right on schedule. They had clearly returned to civilised Manxiga. As they neared the sleepy little village that was the only stop on the pilgrim’s road to the Singing Mountains, a woman came out to meet the group. It seemed as though she was expecting them, though that was impossible, since no-one knew they were coming. Nevertheless, she welcomed the group, especially the slaves, told them she had food ready in her home, and invited them all to join her. It was a welcome that could not be ignored, and so everyone filed gratefully into her small two-room shelter, where a bubbling pot of rice with ginger made such an amazing change from the dull gruel of the past ten days that some of the slaves actually had tears in their eyes.
The human woman’s name was Therese. She was only young herself – certainly no older than 25 – and it seemed that she lived quite simply. As she was handing out little pouches to the slaves – which seemed to contain some copper coins, an eating knife, and usually some other curious things like a hairbrush or a sling – she told them all her story. She had been in a slave caravan run by the myconids, who had been taking a group of slaves south-west from here towards the Fiery Mountains, apparently to be traded to the yuan-ti. But when they neared the desert plateau, the myconid was attacked by a massive beast she could only describe as a landshark. The slaves managed to free themselves from their caged cart, but had no way of knowing where to go in order to reach civilisation again. They thought they were doomed. But a young woman…
“Cass,” Hunter interrupted, and finished the story for her. They knew the story – it was that of Hunter’s sister. Amazing. Apparently this woman had been one of the slaves who had been freed, and pointed back towards Pa Direh by Cass on the plateau. She explained that the other slaves had gone their own ways – back home, or to start new lives – but she had resolved to remain here, just in case anyone else had the good fortune to return back to this village. She had constructed a tiny home, barely enough for herself, and she had a small rice plot that she worked. She also took donations from those who were on pilgrimage to become monks, who discarded their worldly possessions as they left, or certainly upon their return. That’s why she had so many little pouches, and enough coppers to give these returned slaves a startup pack.
The party were so enamoured with this little ministry that they gave her as many coppers as they could scrape together – hundreds in all – as well as a few gold pieces to allow her to expand her home. They also donated Emergency Breakfast, which she was thankful for, even if she didn’t quite know what she would do with a pack mule. She was overwhelmed with their generosity, and overjoyed at the thought of being able to help more people who came along.
As the afternoon turned to evening, they asked her for any information she might have about the cities – they’d been away some time, but were also keen to know if anything the Tu’evan had said was true. She furrowed her brow, especially when looking between the paladin and the cleric, but she nodded. Apparently the news must have been right behind them all the way on their travels, for only a few days after they left Coratka, a riot had broken out at the eastern gate, caused by a group of traders who said they were being discriminated against whilst religious folk got a tax-free run of the gates. The trade families of the humans put down the riot, but they did then wonder at why religion got a free pass, and both the mercantile rulers of Coratka and Queen Dimeh of the ogre kingdom passed a law requiring all religious institutions to pay taxes just as any other business would.
The temples had mixed reactions, anything from uncaring (Carna and Qodesh had little dealing with cities after all) to resignation (Ra’a could hardly argue against greed, and probably also saw it as an opportunity to extend its influence, whilst the Hesedis just accepted it as their lot) to frustration – but although most of the other temples had some sort of negative reaction, they respected the authority of the ruling elites.
Which made it all the more surprising when about a month later, Queen Dimeh apparently nationalised all temples within the ogre kingdom, taking them over as administrative headquarters, and ordering the removal of all religious effects from her kingdoms. This caused a huge furore: not only among the temples themselves, who had suddenly lost great wealth and position within cities and towns, but also amongst the many faithful goblins and ogres who worshipped at these temples. Good and evil gods alike were thrown out on their ears, and buildings turned to government use of one kind or another. Tensions were therefore rising rapidly in the ogre kingdom, and though the human cities had not yet followed suit, there was speculation that at least some human leaders were watching and waiting to see what happened next.